Story: Knox, Walter James

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Knox, Walter James

1919–1991

Truck driver, watersider, trade unionist

This biography, written by Peter Franks, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Walter James Knox was born in Auckland on 6 March 1919, the son of Doris May Dodds and Walter William Knox, who married in 1921. He grew up in the tough, working-class suburb of Freemans Bay. His father found work as a watersider, fireman and electrician, but was also frequently unemployed. Like many others, his family often had to move from house to house to avoid bailiffs demanding rent. This harsh upbringing had a big influence on Jim’s life. He was proud to be a ‘Bay boy’: ‘It made me see that I wasn’t going to receive anything without some form of struggle’. He also learnt the importance of loyalty and solidarity: ‘If you had half a loaf of bread you shared it with your friends. That gave me an understanding of what it meant to be a trade unionist’.

Knox was educated at Auckland Normal School. He left at the age of 15 to work in a foundry where he was badly scarred in an industrial accident. When he was 16 his father apprenticed him to the footwear trade. A keen athlete, Knox played senior rugby union for Suburbs before switching to rugby league, where he played for the City club. On 17 April 1943, at Auckland, he married Margaret Joyce Svendsen; they were to have a son and a daughter. Because of sports injuries, he was declared unfit for war service. He worked as a truck driver before becoming a watersider in Auckland in 1946.

Jim Knox played an active part in the 1951 waterfront lockout as a member of the Auckland watersiders’ action committee. A prominent speaker at public meetings, he was sent by the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union to speak to workers in other centres. He was one of the unionists who successfully defied a police ban on union meetings in the small King Country mining town of Ohura.

After the dispute Knox was blacklisted from the waterfront. He got jobs in freezing works and at the Otahuhu railway workshops, but was dismissed or asked to leave because of his union activities. He returned to truck driving and worked for New Zealand Breweries. In 1957 he regained a leadership position in the union movement when he was elected president of the Northern Drivers’ Union. In 1958 he was elected to the executive of the Auckland Trades Council, the district council of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL), and the following year became a full-time organiser for the Drivers’ Union. He later stood against Bill Andersen, a prominent communist and another ex-watersider, for the secretaryship of the Drivers Union; he was heavily defeated. In 1961 Knox became secretary of the Auckland District Woollen Mills Employees’ Union and was elected vice president of the Auckland Trades Council. He became secretary of several small unions in Auckland, including the brewers and bottlers, foremen stevedores, engine drivers and tally clerks. In 1966 he was elected secretary of the Auckland Trades Council.

The early 1960s brought a resurgence of industrial action and Knox’s militancy saw him elected to the National Executive of the FOL in 1964. A forceful speaker, he was popular among union officials and workers. When Ken Baxter retired as secretary of the FOL in 1969, Knox was elected unopposed as his successor. He moved to Wellington. As secretary he was very much in the public shadow of the organisation’s president, Tom Skinner, who was the unions’ undisputed national leader. They worked together closely and Knox was a loyal deputy. But while Skinner was an unabashed moderate, Knox retained his militant views. As he stated in interviews, ‘I am always conscious of the class struggle’.

Outside the union movement, Knox was portrayed as grim and gruff; within the movement, he was regarded as a straight shooter who could be trusted because of his honesty. His forte as a national union leader was negotiating settlements for often difficult industrial disputes. But he was not an effective administrator and failed to grasp the need for the FOL to seek more resources from its affiliated unions in order to expand its research and information base. While the FOL leadership complained about bad facilities, Knox and Skinner ran the organisation on a shoestring.

The election of the National government led by Robert Muldoon in 1975 was followed by growing conflict. Muldoon’s government imposed a wage freeze, put penal provisions in industrial legislation, and introduced ballots on compulsory union membership. There was a growing militancy among unions in reaction to these policies and Skinner came under criticism for his approach of seeking compromise by negotiation. He retired as FOL president at the federation’s 1979 conference, and in the election of his successor, Jim Knox decisively defeated Tony Neary of the North Island Electrical Trades Union. The new secretary, Ken Douglas, was the first communist to win a top leadership position in the FOL. The new leadership was widely seen as representing a shift to the left. Knox did not hide his militant views, but he stressed the main lesson of the 1951 waterfront dispute: unions had to avoid a showdown with the government.

Conflict between the unions and the government increased after Muldoon passed the Remuneration Act 1979 to stop the FOL proceeding with a general wage order. The FOL responded by calling the first nationwide general strike on 20 September 1979. In early 1980 Knox was at the forefront of a major strike at the Kinleith paper mill. After a seven-week stoppage, he was successful in negotiating to bring the core trades rate at the plant into line with that paid at the other paper mill at Kawerau. Muldoon then used the Remuneration Act to pass regulations reducing the rate. The Kinleith workers continued the strike, supported by nationwide fund-raising organised by the FOL. After a month, the government backed down and revoked the regulations.

This ‘mighty success story’, as Knox described it, gave a tremendous boost to the confidence of trade unionists and increased Knox’s standing as a militant leader. The FOL stepped up its opposition to the Remuneration Act with a campaign in defence of living standards. Mass protest rallies were held throughout the country. The government revoked the act after an agreement from the FOL to talks on wages policy. Industrial tension continued to increase. After the FOL rejected a proposal for tax cuts instead of a wage rise, Muldoon introduced tax cuts and imposed a wage and price freeze in June 1982. The unions responded with a series of protest rallies, and a special FOL conference in November 1982 launched a campaign for a $20-a-week wage rise to break the freeze.

A positive outcome of the government’s anti-union policies was increased co-operation between the FOL and the Combined State Unions (CSU). From 1980 the two organisations worked closely on campaigns and in discussions with the government. In 1982 a working party was established to discuss the formation of a new central trade union organisation to replace the FOL and the CSU. While Knox did not initiate the new relationship with the state unions, he supported it. Another important development was the increased participation of women in union structures. The election of Sonja Davies as vice president of the FOL in 1983 reflected their influence. Knox encouraged women unionists, although he could give offence with sexist comments.

Knox played an active part in international trade union affairs through the International Labour Organisation and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. His uncompromising opposition to apartheid and nuclear weapons and his blunt, often undiplomatic style won him popularity and respect in these forums. At home, however, the FOL and Knox faced increasing difficulties. The unions were unable to break the wage freeze and little progress was made in the wage talks with the government and the employers. In 1983 the government introduced significant and detrimental changes to state pay-fixing legislation and passed a law making union membership voluntary. Unlike Skinner, Knox was uncomfortable in negotiations with Muldoon. He found it impossible to disguise his deep hatred of the prime minister and was prone to lose his temper during meetings.

By the time of Labour’s sweeping victory in the snap election of 1984, Knox was under increasing criticism. He was attacked for his poor handling of the media, for his rhetoric about class struggle and for being totally ineffective in negotiations with Muldoon. Labour’s victory was a mixed blessing for the unions. While welcoming the new government’s industrial relations, social and foreign policies, the FOL and the CSU were shocked by its free-market economic policies and the speed with which they were introduced. Knox was resolute in criticising these policies. Unions wanted a Labour government, he told the 1986 FOL conference, but ‘this mindless purism, this ideological straitjacket, this market madness, it is tearing our country apart’. The proposal to form the Council of Trade Unions finally came to a vote at the conference. Opponents, led by the seamen’s and watersiders’ unions, argued that joining with the state unions would dilute the FOL’s militancy. Knox was firm in his support for the new central organisation, although he was very upset when opponents walked out after the conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of forming the CTU.

Long separated from his first wife, from whom he was divorced in February 1983, Jim Knox married Elizabeth Watson Bell Curtis (née Norrie) in Wellington on 9 April 1983. In his last years as FOL president he suffered increasing bad health. He retired in 1988 after the CTU was established. In his retirement he continued as a director of the New Zealand Railways Corporation and a trustee of the Todd Foundation, positions to which he had been appointed while president of the FOL. He played bowls, and had earlier been a member and chairman of school boards in Auckland. His service to working people and the union movement was widely recognised, and he was one of the first members of the Order of New Zealand. After his retirement, a ‘rousing and colourful’ tribute was paid to him at a function in the City–Newton rugby league club rooms in Freemans Bay. A large banner proclaimed, ‘Jim Knox – ever loyal to his class’.

Jim Knox died in Wellington on 1 December 1991, survived by his second wife and his children. He was the most prominent of the post-war union leaders blooded in the 1951 waterfront dispute. He had been a tenacious negotiator, but lacked the versatility and political skills that were the hallmark of Tom Skinner. Throughout his union career Knox was a militant. His honesty, loyalty and sympathy to workers in struggle made him a much-loved leader.

How to cite this page:

Peter Franks. 'Knox, Walter James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5k13/knox-walter-james (accessed 18 November 2018)